Participant Observation And Covert Research

While critically evaluating Norris work outlined in the four forms of participant observation, it is essential to understand the key linkage between participant observation and ethnography in the research process. According to Bryman and Bell (2003), concepts of ethnography and participant observation have been difficult to distinguish from each other as both involve extended involvement of the researcher in the social life of his/her research subjects. In Participant Observation and Ethnography, the researcher gets personally involved in the whole research process for an extended period of time, observing behaviour, listening and interrogating with the research subjects. It may be possible that the term Ethnography may be preferred over the term Participant Observation, as the latter implies to collection of data through observation. Although, in practice, participant observers do more than just observe, they also collate information through interviews and collection of documents. Thus sometimes Ethnography is referred to when participant observation is the main, but not only, method of data generation (Bryman and Bell, 2003). The use of Participant Observation as a research method has been significantly less in the area of management and business research. Although as the principal research method it’s a very valuable tool, but is often used in combination with other methods (Saunders et al., 2009).

Gill and Johnson (2002, p. 144) defines participant observation ‘as the method in which the researcher attempts to participate fully in the lives and activities of subjects and thus becomes a member of their group, organisation or community. This enables researchers to share their experiences by not merely observing what is happening but also feeling it’.

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Participant Observation within an inductive framework can be defined as ‘Combines participation on the lives of people being studied with maintenance of a professional distance that allows adequate observation and rewarding of data’ (Fetterman, 1998 p. 34-5). Gold (1958 cited in Norris, 2003, p. 126) highlights that ‘participant observation’ is a key term that covers a continuum from complete participant to complete observer.

Participant Observation refers to the adoption of a number of potential roles differentiated by the extent to which the researcher’s identity is concealed from the subjects of the research and the degree to which the researcher participates in the events occurring in his/her field of study (Saunders et al., 2009).

While Bryman and Bell (2003), defines Ethnography as the practice of writing (graphy) with the study of culture (ethno). While Hammersley and Atkinson (2002:1) define ethnography as ‘it involves the ethnographer participating, overtly or covertly, in people’s daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions – in fact, collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the focus of research’.

McCall and Simmons (1969) defines ethnography as “aˆ¦.some amount of genuine social interaction in the field with the subjects of study, some direct observation of relevant events, some formal and a great deal of informal interviewing, some systematic counting, some collection of documents and artefacts; and open-endedness in the direction the study takes.”

According to Blumberg et al (2005) sources of data in organizational ethnography might include simple quantitative information and stats on demographics of the employee population and organizational structure, qualitative interview transcripts, qualitative behavioural information: diary keeping, anecdotes from interactions, customs and habits of members of the organisation etc, observational accounts and visual images of layout of offices, building architecture, uniforms, archival documents, policy and marketing documents. (Jennifer’s slide: Ref)

Some of the key advantages of Participant Observation includes that it provides an in-depth understanding of what is taking place in particular social situations being observed, it increases the researchers understanding and awareness about most social processes, procurement and access to relevant data is easier when the researcher adopts this method in his/her own organisation, it may provide the researcher the opportunity to witness and feel the emotions of the research subjects and thus all the data collected through this method accentuates the relevance of the research (Saunders et al., 2009).

The two forms of research approaches in participant organisation include Covert and Overt approach. Covert research takes place when those studies are unaware of the presence of a researcher, or where the actual purpose of the observer is hidden. The two main rationales behind the use of covert approaches include that subjects may behave differently when they are aware that they are being observed that is will minimize subjects reactivity to research. The effect of this can be eliminated by eliminating reactivity by subjects to the researcher’s personal attributes and research techniques and avoid the imposition of personal orientation on the data. The second reason for adopting covert approach is it side-steps the problem of not getting access to conduct the research especially in an organizational set up (Gills and Johnson, 2002 and Bryman and Bell, 2003). Whereas overt research is carried out when those subjects on whom the research is being conducted on are aware and informed about the research process and due consent has been taken prior to the commencement of the research. An overt approach is ethically sounder than covert research; gatekeepers may facilitate access to a wider range of areas within on organisation, easier to record data. However, in an overt research, issue of trust may cause a hindrance, there may be a higher degree of subject reactivity to the research, procurement of permissions for gaining access may be time consuming and access may be restricted to certain areas within an organisation. There are advantages and disadvantages of both the above cited approaches in participant organisation which are to do with (1) reactivity, (2) ethics and (3) access.

Spano (2007) in his research on police culture pointed out that police are suspicious of outsiders and are not accustomed to getting their decisions scrutinized by their supervisors, thus the concept of an observer giving inputs may not be accepted. Due to these concerns, criminal justice scholars had recognised the potential for reactivity during observational studies of criminals or criminal justice actors. The article shed light on how research subjects (or the police) alter their behaviour due to the presence of an observer. The article also reflected upon the relationship between time in the field and reactivity as research evidence suggests that the reactivity will dissipate over time. The article also discussed about the relationship between observer sex and reactivity in police observational data. Spano (2003) conducted the assessment of reactivity in police observational data. Consistent with the field research literature and policing literature he found evidence that police officers did alter their behaviour in an attempt to shelter female research observers from potentially dangerous events.

Cooper and Schindler (2008, p. 34 cited in Saunders et al., 2009, p. 184) defines ethics as the ‘norms or standards of behaviour that guide moral choices about our behaviour and our relationships with others’. As defined by Saunders et al. (2009), Research Ethics involves ‘the appropriateness if the researcher’s behaviour in relation to the rights of those who become the subject of a research project, or who are affected by it’. It is essential for a researcher to ensure that the designing of the research, in this case based on the four forms of participant observation, are methodologically sound and morally justifiable to all participants involved in the research (Saunders et al., 2009). Covert observation contravenes two important ethical believes that it does not provide participants with the opportunity for ‘informed consent’ and thus it involves deception and lack of trust. It can also be taken to be a violation or invasion of the principle of privacy (Norris, 2003 and Bryman and Bell, 2003). It can further hamper the future of any research being carried out, as researchers would be identified by the public as voyeurs (Bryman and Bell, 2003). It can thus be said that adherence to the principle of informed consent implies that few conditions have been fulfilled. Firstly, the research subjects are made aware of and understand the nature and purposes of the research; and secondly from a position of knowledge of the participants, they can freely give their consent to participating in the research (Norris, 2003, p.128).

Access to organizational settings may be influenced by the researcher’s choice to adopt overt or covert research (Goode, 1996; Van Mannen, 1988 cited in Grills, 1998, p.55). The difference among these approaches has created a lot of debate among research sociologists with regards to ethics, trust and deception. In an overt research approach, researchers communicate their research interests to prospective gatekeepers and informants in an organization, while in a covert research approach such interests and intentions are hidden or concealed (Grills, 1998, p. 55). Consequently, covert approach is considered to be the easiest method to gain access in an organization (Bryman and Bell, 2003, p. 319).

Norris (1993) uses a categorisation on the construction of a research role in participant observation developed by Van Mannen which is similar to that of Gold’s classification described later in the essay. The four forms of positions that can be adopted in a participant observation research are SPY, VOYEUR, MEMBER and FAN:









Pure Types of Participant – Observer Role (adapted from Van Maanen 1978, p. 344)

SPY – This adopts a covert role where the researcher’s active presence and involvement as a complete participant in the research process is unknown to the participant group. Also the purpose of carrying out the research is concealed and not known by the participants. Some of the key strengths of this include easy access to information. For example it would be difficult to get permission to access records of patients in a psychiatric hospital or to be granted interviews with doctors or nurses. But through admission in the hospital as a member of staff, the researcher (spy) would have invaluable access to materials and information on his subjects. Also if the researcher is able to conceal his identity as a researcher, it would be convenient and easier for the researcher to witness the true reactions of the hospital staff with their patients and vice-a-versa. One of the major limitations of this approach would be the issue of research ethics. As per the research ethics, researchers have an obligation to their subjects to seek the consent of the participant before writing or publishing any research carried out on them. It can be more time consuming to analyse the huge data gathered during active involvement and participation in the research process. The researcher will also have limited access to those higher than him who may be in a position to provide valuable information about the research topic.

MEMBER – This position adopts an overt role where consent of the research has been taken, purpose of the research is known to the participants and the researcher participates in the research as an observer. Both the parties to the research (researcher and subjects) are aware that it is a field-work relationship. One of the major strengths of this approach is that the access to information is relatively easy since he is already engaged as an employee in the firm and since his identity and purpose is also known would facilitate him collating the desired relevant information easily. Researcher would also get better cooperation from his colleagues in providing information for the research project. However, some of the limitations of this approach include the possibility of not being able to obtain genuine information from sources and may be more time consuming.

VOYEUR – In this role the researcher is more passive in his approach and adopts covert approach in the research activity by being a complete observer and not revealing the purpose of conducting the research thus minimizing the participant’s reaction to research. It also facilitates in overcoming the problem of access to information. Some of the limitations pertaining to ethics include not taking the consent of the participant group and it can be more time consuming and costly.

FAN – In this role the researcher is passive and adopts an overt approach by being a participating as an observer. Although the identity as a researcher and the purpose would be known to the research subjects and thus would be more ethically sound. The researcher would be able to make notes on a real-time basis and thereby focus on engaging in discussions with the research participants. While some of the limitations of this role would be that by merely playing the role of a researcher he may not be able to fully understand responses given by the participants, the researcher may not be trusted and thus the participants may not disclose the actual facts which may affect the quality of data collection and analysis.


The researcher’s role as a participant observer in participant observation is very crucial in the entire research process. Gill and Johnson (2002) developed a four-fold classification of the role that a participant observer can undertake. The diagrammatic representation of the roles is as follows:

Researcher takes part in activity

Researcher’s identity is revealed

Researcher takes part in activity

Researcher’s identity is revealed Participant as observer

Researcher’s identity is concealedComplete Participant

Observer as participant

Complete observer

Researcher observes activity

Researcher observes activity

Complete participant: This role allows the researcher to participate and become a member in the participant research group and be active in the research group. In this role, the researcher will not reveal the true identity of the research purpose. Although concealing of information from the group is against the research ethics and can be regarded as spying. However, the same can be justified on basis of pure research grounds. Thus the researcher plays a covert role by actively participating in the research group and not disclosing the actual purpose of the research. This would help the participant researcher by not losing sight of the research purpose (Saunders et al. 2009).

Complete Observer: In this role the researcher will not disclose the purpose of conducting the research and nor would participate as a participant in the research activity and thus would adopt the role of a voyeur that is passive and covert. As the researcher would play the role of a mere observer in the research process. This role is commonly used in studying the consumer behaviour in shopping centres and malls. The patterns of behaviour displayed may be the precursor to research by structured observation. This role is generally undertaken by the researcher in the exploratory stage of the research project (Saunders et al., 2009).

Observer as participant: In this role the researcher acts as a spectator and does not undertake participation as a participant in the research project. Also since the identity of the researcher would be known to the participant group, the researcher can focus more by capturing the insights and events immediately as they occur and also get involved in discussing with the participants for any further additional data required for the project. Thus, the researcher could adopt the position of being a Fan that is passive and overt (Saunders et al., 2009).

Participant as observer: In this role, the purpose of the researcher is revealed to the group and they share a cordial fieldwork relationship (Ackroyd and Hughes 1992 cited in Saunders, et al., 2009, p. 294). The researcher is primarily concerned with gaining the trust of the research group members. Punch (1993 cited in Saunders, et al., 2009, p. 294), played this role to study the work of Police force in Amsterdam. During the process of the study, Punch was successful in building trust and confidence among the policemen on whom he was conducting the research. This helped him in gaining access in many activities which otherwise would have been difficult for a civil person. Further, as the identity and purpose of the research is known, the researcher in order to enhance his/her understanding can ask questions pertinent to the topic. Robson (2002 cited in Saunders, et al., 2009), highlights that participants can also provide an analytic approach on the research. Thus the researcher can adopt the position of a Member in the Participant Observation research by being active and playing an overt role where those studied understand and have agreed to the research.

Gold (1958) designed a similar model to classify participant observer roles which was based on the extent of involvement with and detachment from members of the social setting (Bryman and Bell, 2003). The diagrammatic representation of the four roles in Gold’s classification is as follows:

Complete Participant
Complete observer

Gold (1958 cited in Bryman and Bell, 2003) states that the role of participant-as-observer bears the risk of over-identification with the research group and hence may lead to shift in focus of the researcher’s position as a researcher can affect the collection and analysis of data. While the observer-as-participant role bears the risk of not properly understanding the social set up and the participants that may lead to incorrect and misleading inferences. The complete observer and the complete participant role reduce the problem of reactivity. However, the complete observer role may bring in the risk of the researcher failing to understand situations and participants.

Gans (1968 cited in Bryman and Bell, 2003, p. 325) has framed a classification of participant observer roles as total participant in which the researcher is completely involved in the research condition and would make relevant notes at the end of the research process. Secondly, in researcher-participant the researcher is not fully engaged as a participant; thus allowing sufficient time to perform the functions that of a researcher. Lastly, total-researcher whereby the researcher does is merely an observer and fulfils the role of a researcher. The key advantage of Gans’s classification is that it reflects the extent of involvement of the researcher and the degree of detachment in each role. However, this classification only deals with overt observation and emphasizes that an ethnographer or researcher does not necessarily adopt a single role throughout their research process.

Thus the limitations of all four forms of participant observation can be summarized as few forms of participant observation may be time consuming, some forms like SPY and VOYEUR may impose some ethical dilemmas for the researcher leading to role conflict for the researcher, with direct involvement as a participant the researcher may develop observer bias, which is one of the greatest threat to the reliability and validity of a research conclusion and in participant observation forms like MEMBER and FAN it may be difficult for the researcher to gain easy access (Saunder et al., 2009). Building on Van Mannen’s (1979) typology, Norris (2003) describes that the researcher has to always keep on shifting between roles. In his research on explaining and elucidating the practice of policing from the street-level officer’s perspective, Norris had to constantly adapt to different roles as per situation’s demand. He deliberately placed himself in the position of a Voyeur to eavesdrop on private conversations of the police officers. In order to capture the key inputs from that conversation, Norris would move into an isolated place and adopt the position of a Spy. However, on most occasions when he participated in an event as an observer, he played the role of a Fan and while he actively participated in the event as a police officer and was also introduced to people as a fellow police officer he portrayed the role of a Member.

Thus to conclude SPY and VOYEUR are the only two forms of participant observation that involves some aspects of covert research approach. Van Mannen (1978, p. 346 cited in Norris, 2003, p. 127) adds that ‘there is no way for the field-worker to be sure that his research role in the organisation is in fact the role that the other are responding to’. Therefore it can be re-emphasized that in any participant observation research, the researcher needs to adopt to a number of potential roles differentiated by the purpose of the research, the time allotted to carry out the research, the extent to which the researcher feels suited to the participant observation role, the sort of access to information and participants required from the organisation and the various other ethical considerations (Saunders et al., 2009).


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